When it comes to a decision to alive abroad, it all comes down to whether you want to live in the West or live outside the West. It isn’t really about a certain country or city, it’s more about a particular lifestyle.
That has been my philosophy in a nutshell. And, for me, my whole living abroad experience has been about the “rawness” of living outside the West, away from its hyper-organized rules and regulations.
It all started in Brazil around ten years ago. I had just finished toiling away the best years of my life for a string of companies in Silicon Valley. I knew I needed a change. I knew I needed to do something. And I knew it had to be a drastic change, and not one where I would merely move to another city in the great US of A.
Brazil did the trick. While the country somewhat resembles a Western country: it’s populated by mostly European descedents who use iPhones and shop in huge shopping malls, Brazil is light years away from the tightly organized and boring feel you mostly find in places like the US and Western Europe.
After Brazil, I spent a bit of time in more organized—and boring—countries such as Spain and Denmark, before heading east to Lithuania and ultimately to Ukraine, a country where I was born and where I’ve been living on and off for the last four years.
I have a love and hate relationship with my former homeland. As an entitled Westerner who’s used to things like smiles and handholding—with a bit of humanity thrown in—it’s a place that at times frustrates me. But as someone who hates all the fakeness and bullshit that comes with the former, living in some ex-Soviet shithole of Ukraine has been somewhat refreshing.
Hit the ground running
One of the biggest differences between a comfortable Western country like US and a non-Western country like Ukraine is that it’s a lot easier to get settled in the latter than the former.
Everything is simple without the run around. Once I landed and passed passport control, it took me all but ten minutes to secure a 4G sim card. No long term contracts or hidden fees.
Another ten minutes to rent an apartment in the center, in my favorite neighborhood. Again, no long-term contracts or hidden fees.
After settling into my new pad, I walked five minutes into my favorite gym. I had two choices for membership: pay for a visit or signup for a month. Knowing that I will be staying in this city for a while, I paid the monthly fee ($10) and walked into the lock room.
This applies to everything, all kinds of services, whether you’re looking to secure some sort of accommodation or join a great Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy.
No long term commitments, no hidden fees, no exorbitant cancellation charges that American companies (and other Western countries) have gotten so good at extracting out of you.
Landed at JFK and need a cellular plan? That would be $75/mo from AT&T Wireless in Terminal 7, thank you very much. Fuck that.
Tired of paying $100/mo for cable you never watch and want to cancel it and just have wifi service from the same provider? Good luck with that, because your friendly cable company won’t just let you take the $100, so you can pay $10 for wifi; you’ll have to pay a bit more for wifi instead.
Want to join a gym? That would be at least $25/mo and good luck cancelling it because they’ll make your life a living hell once you decide to stop giving them money.
Same goes for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training, a sport I’ve been practicing for around ten years all over the world. There’s an unspoken custom of the free visit to be free that’s honored by every academy I’ve been too. But only in America will you be “reminded” to signup for weeks on end a week after checking out a new school.
My family lives in New York, but I can’t picture myself living there even if someone put a gun to my head. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Big Apple. But I’d rather swallow nails then rent a long-term apartment there. Like, paying 3x monthly rent as a deposit, making sure the contract doesn’t have any hidden clauses that would wipe out my savings when I decide to move out and other nuisances.
I can keep going, but you get the point. America is a business. Its religion is money. Great for making money, not so great when you’re the one others are hellbent making money from.
Now, of course, this isn’t applicable to every city in USA and heck, it isn’t even applicable to every country in the West, but it has been my unambiguous experience that no matter where you are, from Bali to Thailand, from Mexico City to Ukraine, from Rio de Janeiro to Lithuania, things are just simple and easy compared to its Western counterparts.
I remembered how difficult it was to rent an apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark. I couldn’t just rent any apartment; I had to sign a brand new lease in order to be “registered” there. (If you’re not registered with the city, you don’t exist.), but then I went to Lithuania and rented a beautiful apartment right in the middle of the old town within a week. No fuss. No muss. No problems.
Few places are easier to live than Lithuania. During my sojourn there, I enjoyed one of the fastest wifi connections in the world—a whopping 50MBit. The cost? $10/month. (That was three years ago, I think you can get 100mbit for like $15/mo now).
Once again, no hidden fees, no contracts, nothing at all to make your life even more miserable.
What makes the West “The West”? For one, it’s the standard of living. You get paid more cash in Las Vegas than in Chiang Mai and you get access to more shit.
Second, the government is stronger and more present. You’ll have a higher chance of getting a speeding ticket in northern California than in northern Thailand.
When the government is stronger, things are more organized. Taxes are collected. Roads are paved. Trains run on time. And more money is taken out of your pocket should you break some silly contract with your telco or your landlord. Lawyers gotta eat, too.
Have your cake and eat it, too
Now, of course, it’s not all peaches and cream in Brazil or Ukraine. When our refrigerator broke in Rio de Janeiro, my roommates and I waited four days for a repairman to fix it. When you have a disagreement with your landlord in Odessa, Ukraine, it’s you against your landlord; there’s no “small claims” court to hear your case.
Piss someone off in New York City and they may send you a “cease and desist” letter. Piss someone off in Kiev, Ukraine and they may send a burly man to your apartment or office.
In the West, everything is official. Everything needs to be done “by the book.” But outside the West, everything is personal. Relationships are established between people, not corporations. It’s not some nameless court who’ll hear your case; it’s Ivan, your next door neighbor.
In many ways, living in Ukraine still has this “rawness” to it that America had during the first part of the 20th century. Granted, I’m not in the capital—which is rapidly becoming more and more “developed”—but where I am, a man can simply live and be free, and if he doesn’t bother anyone, no one is going to bother him.
I experienced something similar in rural areas in places like Thailand, Indonesia and Colombia.
When I was living in Chiang Mai few years ago, I rented a car and spent a week driving around Northern Thailand. I didn’t break any speed limits, but I throughout the entire week, I didn’t see a single patrol car anywhere.
As someone who grew up in Brooklyn, it was refreshing not seeing a single police car for miles and miles, something that you will never see in New York City. I liked it. After all, I’m an adult, and I’ll take full responsibility for my driving.
But that’s not to say you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Cities like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Tbilisi, Georgia are rapidly becoming go-to cities for all kinds of expats, especially those who’re tired of the West, with all of its rules and regulations, but also those who still seek the comfort and predictability of their former homelands.